Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women in Ministry (Part 1): Why I'm happy to support women in ministry

My first genuine encounter with women in ministry happened in college. Week after week, I would listen to faithful women give powerful proclamation of the word of God. At that time, I'd never really given any thought as to whether or not it was permissible for a woman to preach to men or to serve on a church staff. The church I grew up in only had men in the pulpit, but I remember women taking a prominent role in many other aspects of church life. If that church had discussions about the role of gender in church life, they didn't have it with the teenagers. So college was the first time that I encountered women teaching and preaching in any significant way. It was, therefore, the first time I began a serious pursuit of what the Bible had to say about women in ministry. 

The women that first got me thinking about this issue weren't employed by any church. They were my peers at the Baptist Student Ministry at Texas A&M. We would often have students lead small group Bible studies and the larger weekly meetings. Some of the very best teachers/preachers were some of the women students. What is ironic, is that these women, for the most part, believed that it was unscriptural for women to preach. They would explain their own teaching by explaining that it wasn't in a church setting or that it wasn't really preaching. They'd call it testimony or something like that (I think Beth Moore does the same kind of verbal gymnastics). I always found that a little silly. In those days, we Baptist would often talk of having a foot-function, but everyone (including us) knew we were having a dance. The difference between teaching/preaching/offering a testimony is almost negligible.

It's easy to see how someone could come to the conclusion that women shouldn't preach. Passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 restrict a woman's participation in worship. Passages like Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1-6 speak of wives submitting to their husbands. Taken together, I can understand how reasonable, faithful Christians might conclude a woman should not preach in the churches.

Of course, to take that position, one has to either ignore or explain away all of the passage in the New Testament that seem to point in a different direction. Women play a prominent role in Jesus' ministry as well as Paul's (several even host churches in their houses). These women boldly witness of their faith in public among men and women (Acts 9:36; 16:14-15, 40; 18:26; 21:9). 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has had the most impact on me. There Paul writes of women's active role in leading worship through prayer and prophesying (a form of preaching!). He writes matter-of-factly about this, only advising the women to dress modestly when they do so.

An honest reading of the scriptures must admit that both sides of this issue can use the Bible to make their case. I mean, in the book of 1 Corinthians alone we have Paul both permitting and prohibiting women from speaking! Therefore, it's not an issue of whether one believes in the Bible or not, but rather, how one has chosen to interpret the Bible. I've come to my interpretation, mainly, because I believe that when the gospel is most clearly expressed in the New Testament, it communicates the equal participation of men and women in the coming kingdom of God. Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) quotes from the prophet Joel of a time when men and women will be filled with the Spirit and will prophesy of God's work in the world. Paul, likewise, notes, that in Christ Jesus, those old divisions that separate us from one another cease to divide (Galatians 3:28). I realize that others will come to other conclusions, but let be said, I have come to my position based on my study of the scriptures, not despite it (For a fuller treatment of this subject check out this brochure by my friend and former professor, Dr. Todd Still. It will be obvious that I've drawn from his work for this post.).

After college, I went to seminary, purposefully choosing a seminary that supported women and ministry. Even so, I knew that culturally, most of my friends still did not support either my decision to attend that seminary or to support women in ministry. Alyson and I began looking for a church in Waco. We looked and looked. We had heard good things about Calvary Baptist and their pastor Julie Pennington-Russell. But, even though we had come to a place where we were OK with women in ministry, we weren't quite sure we wanted to face all the conversations and criticism our friends and some of our family might direct our way for attending a church with a woman pastor. So we tried some other churches. We tried lots of churches. Nothing seemed to fit. Then we heard Julie speak at a conference for students and we knew that we needed to give Calvary a chance. After just a handful of Sundays we joined Calvary and Julie became our pastor. 

That experience changed my outlook completely from being one of passive to active support for women in ministry. I've been blessed to grow up under some excellent preachers, but Julie was by far the best. Her sermons challenged me to walk more faithfully with God and to fall ever more in love with our Savior Jesus Christ. I learned through that experience that the church that quiets female voices is an impoverished church indeed. How many other Julies sit in the pew each week, gifted by the Spirit, but not allowed or encouraged to speak. I still think those classmates back at A&M were (and probably still are) excellent preachers. I just wish they believed the same.

4 comments:

Adam & Kara said...

Pastor Sandlin,

I completely understand what you are saying and I appreciate all the scripture you posted along with your entry.

A question I have is, do you think there is a difference between a woman "preaching" in a church and a woman "pastoring" a church? I ask bc, as a woman of faith - I do not have issue with a woman preaching to a congregation at times. I think the point of view a woman can bring may bring insight to our other brothers and sisters in Christ.

However, I do not think I would feel comfortable with a woman pastoring a church (just as I would feel uncomfortable with a female president).

It is not bc I feel we as women would be unqualified to do so, but bc the examples that you mentioned given in the Bible.

I don't think that God could work any less through a woman as a pastor, but the idea of it makes me (personally) uncomfortable. However, I plan to read the verses you left and hope to gain more insight into the subject.

Thank you so much for challenging me and giving me an opportunity to grow in Him.

See you Sunday!
In Him
Kara Netzel

Taylor said...

Kara,

Thanks for the comment, the question, and the willingness to dialogue on this topic. On a basic level there is a difference between a woman preaching and pastoring a church in the sense that some churches will allow one and not the other. The reason for this position is very similar to what you have stated. These churches value the viewpoint and voice of women in their congregational life but are attempting to find some mediating position that holds all the scriptures I mentioned in some kind of tension. Hence women are allowed to preach or prophesy, but not allowed to pastor, as pastoring implies having some kind of authority over men.

In practice, this is what many churches (both moderate and conservative) practice. Conservative churches don’t always call what the women do “preaching,” but they nevertheless incorporate female voices into their church life even as they would never allow them to pastor (I think of someone like Beth Moore in this instance). Moderate churches, which might freely allow a woman to preach on occasion, still rarely hire a female as a pastor even if they think it is ok. I think this has to do with a fear of controversy or just being unaccustomed to women in leadership positions. As you noted, you trust that God could work through a women, the idea just makes you personally uncomfortable. I was once in that exact same place.

I think this feeling of uncomfortableness is in large part because there are still cultural issues that limit women in leadership. We may think that our culture has progressed greatly in regards to women’s equality (and in many regards it has), but it was just a couple of years ago that the first female won an Academy award for best director. If liberal Hollywood is still slow to recognize women in leadership, we shouldn’t be surprised that the rest of our culture is, as well.

Personally, I find no reason to limit women in any capacity of church life. I have been a member of a church with a female pastor and it was one of the best church experiences of my life. Obviously, I have chosen to interpret some of the passages in Paul that limit women’s participation as specific instructions to that day and age. I’ve done that for a few reasons. One, those passages often contain instructions that almost every Christian considers culturally bound. We don’t require our women to have long hair that remains covered in public. Most of the women I know wear jewelry. Why do we ignore those verses but choose to hold onto the prohibition to speak or lead? Also, in the household codes (those passages that give instructions to husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters), no sane Christian would argue that because Paul commands slaves to obey their masters, that means slavery is ok. We realize that Paul was speaking into the culture of his day. In the same way, we know that women in that day were considered little better than slaves, so I view Paul’s language to them in the same way as I view his words to the slaves, as culturally bound.

I hope that helps explain my thought process a little bit further. I enjoy the conversation and am glad you helped get it started.

Adam & Kara said...

Thank you for your quick response, I'm sitting down with my Bible now & going over the verses you have posted along with your thoughts. I'm excited to gain some new insight!

Patrick Adair said...

Well said, sir! I appreciate that you wrote this, and shared the link to Dr. Still's brochure, as well.